With clockwork predictability, the response of Corbyn’s cultists this week to a comedy skit by Tracey Ullman was to assign it to the nefarious machinations of a vast Zionist conspiracy against the Dear Leader; another example of the relentless humourlessness among the Labour faithful which is itself very funny — and at the same time very sinister, pathognomonic of a fundamentally totalist mindset which brooks no mockery, the same mindset which leads, somewhere down the line, to bloodied corpses littering the corridors of Charlie Hebdo.
It’s also altogether un-British, standing in glum contradiction to a fine tradition in these islands which has gifted to the world a rich patrimony of political satire from Swift and Pope through to Henry Root and Brass Eye. Then again, so much of the Corbyn phenomenon is altogether un-British, an alien and by no means welcome intrusion into our national life: The Cult of Personality, the eliminationist intolerance, and of course the truly toxic antisemitism.
Jew-hatred and humourlessness are really two sides of the same debased currency (you rarely encounter a cheerful antisemite). It’s no coincidence that satire and self-deprecation are popularly perceived as typically Jewish traits, be it the baleful introspection of Maimonides or Woody Allen’s Early Funny Ones. That Jews can smile (albeit wearily) in the teeth of tragedy is one of their historic strengths: The Jewish joke can be cracked in the surety that the loudest laughter in response will itself be Jewish. Contrast with the dismal edifice of fundamentalist Islamism, where a cartoon can cause all five pillars of the faith to tremble.
Fittingly, Corbyn isn’t overly fond of cartoons either. Recently The Daily Telegraph carried a series of tributes to its pocket cartoonist Matt (Matthew Pritchett), celebrating his 30 years with the paper. Prime Minister Theresa May and all four of her living predecessors were fulsome and good-natured in praise of Matt’s efficient wit, even when they were its target (especially when they were its target). Corbyn’s office, however, told the Telegraph, icily: “None of Matt’s cartoons about Jeremy Corbyn have been funny.” It was a chilling retort, in a way just as chilling as Corbyn’s penchant for the company of terrorists, Holocaust deniers, and diverse Britain-hating, Jew-hating lunatics these past 40 years. Corbyn shares with his self-declared friends in Hamas and Hezbollah the pathological dislike of caricature, the inability to take a hit, the austerity of spirit which damns all lampoonery as an unforgivable trespass against The Cause and the messianic dignity of its Leader.
And what a strange messiah he is, this dusty old man with his litany of grudges, suddenly and inexplicably promoted from a nagging backbench crepitus to object of mass worship and potential Prime Minister. The Cult of Personality- Corbyn as a weird intersectional mash-up of Princess Diana, Father Christmas, and Lenin- may be alien to British politics, but is historically a default setting for socialism, from Marx himself onwards: The need for a temporal saviour to resolve and explain away all contradictions and inconsistencies and offer constant quasi-religious reassurance of the better life to come (which never actually arrives). It is the job of satire (when it does its job properly) to identify these contradictions and inconsistencies, to prick pretension and deflate the hubris of the powerful. Michael Palin once observed that the only truly subversive moment in The Life of Brian is the crowd collapsing in laughter at the impedimental bombastry of Pontius Pilate. The point being: Once they start laughing at you, you’ve lost them for good.
It seems apposite that after seeing off Owen Smith’s challenge to his leadership in 2016 Corbyn didn’t celebrate- instead he went to make pizzas for the poor in a community cafe in Birkenhead. In different circumstances we might find this sort of thing commendable, yet all we feel is uneasy. To have gone out and enjoyed himself would have seemed a very human thing to do- and, for that reason, would have seemed vaguely wrong. This man does not drink or smoke, eat meat, or even, so we are to understand, take any particular pleasure in confectionery (it took considerable pressure from the hard-hitting interviewers at Mumsnet to get Corbyn to name his favourite biscuit; after saying he was anti-sugar he finally conceded he would sometimes have a shortbread “if forced to accept one”).
Orwell comes to mind here, specifically his counsel against the “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, pacifist, vegetarian with wilting beard, and outer-suburban creeping Jesus” so typical of the ranks of the hard left. In Corbyn we spy the same mock-Trappist poverty of private passions, the same disdain for the ephemera which enliven human experience and raise it above the base animalism of ceaseless struggle. Lonely men have few interests beyond revolution, and in their quiet hours they frown and conjure monsters. “There is no laughter in heaven” said the Ayatollah Khomeini. All the more reason then to treat with the profoundest suspicion all those, like Corbyn, who seek and promise to build heaven on earth.